Leon Redbone's niche

Minstrel crooner survives on the fringe

Disco music, punk rock, the urban cowboy craze, grunge ... how many musical trends and flavors have come and gone since Leon Redbone's first appearance on "Saturday Night Live" in the mid-1970s cast him, however quietly, upon the American consciousness? Guitarist/vocalist Redbone, is, in his own words, a "satellite of the music industry." He orbits its fringes with an unflappable bemusement, impervious to fads or trends. It's no surprise, then, that he has little appreciation for the flaunt-it-if-you-got-it histrionics of such contemporary pop celebrities as Mariah Carey, or that he describes that musical style as little more than "disco gone completely berserk," a mindless, visceral format fueled by marketing propaganda.

Redbone is an iconoclast, skeptical of marketing by nature, and hesitant to embrace mass media. Those character traits, he acknowledges, may have limited his commercial success along the way, but they've also allowed him to forge a lasting relationship with his audience.

"I'm noncompliant, a nonbeliever," Redbone says. "I want to understand something [first]. I don't want to jump into it because it seems to be the flavor of the day."

For more than a quarter century, Redbone has been content to perform in a quiet, reflective style, assimilating the persona of a turn-of-the-20th-century minstrel entertainer, resplendently attired in his trademark hat and suit, dark shades and Groucho-styled mustache. His music reflects a diversity of influences ranging from New Orleans-born pianist Jelly Roll Morton to ragtime guitarist Blind Blake to the songs of pre-WWII Tin Pan Alley. His repertoire is stocked with such classic tunes as "Polly Wolly Doodle" and "Shine On Harvest Moon," songs that are as timeless and recognizable as they are archaic and thus unhip in the modern parlance of pop music.

Adopting the vaudeville persona was not a calculated decision, says Redbone, but simply an intuitive move that seemed suited to the types of songs he favors. "I guess if I were a Shirley MacLaine type I would say I was actually channeling, becoming a conduit for a minstrel show performer."

Redbone laughs softly at the notion, but his point is not trivial. From his perspective, a musician must find a method for creating the proper mindset to perform, whether by creating a character or by some other means.

"You cannot bring the state of mind of relaxing in a restaurant and expect to perform a tune," Redbone explains. "There has to be some 'disconnect,' or whatever you want to call it, in order to present something with focus. Some people do it with drugs, some people do it with alcohol, some people do it with exercising. Whatever it takes, it has to be done. I don't know if that's a healthy thing or not. Probably not, would be my guess."

While the process of assuming his alter ego is essential to his own performance, Redbone notes that not all performers ascribe to this practice of "disconnecting" from one's off-stage self.

"Most entertainers are actually themselves when they are onstage. There's no 'disconnect.' Some of them are more interesting offstage then they are onstage, which I always find disappointing. Somehow, when they walk out onstage, they get very serious and want to be as accurate to themselves as possible."

However, Redbone's separation of onstage and offstage identities is virtually complete, at least as far as the public and the media are concerned. He is fiercely protective of information regarding his personal life and has been from the outset of his career.

"Certainly everybody in the entertainment business must look forward to seeing their birthdays celebrated in little columns in newspapers and magazines," he says. "You're not going to see mine there. I've never wanted information like that to go out. I'm not interested in speaking about my private life with anybody, mainly because I consider my life to be on sacred ground as far as that goes, rather than just pumping it out into the media [with a] whatever-it-takes attitude in order to get your name in the paper. Call it paranoid if you like, but I just never liked the idea."

Still, Redbone says he has often envisioned finding a way to let his audiences know more about who he is and what he is thinking.

"If I could find a format, I would possibly be interested in connecting with my audiences in some other fashion than my performances, which one might call stylized — a very narrow band, a very focused, intense moment in time."

He speculates that an interactive feature on a website might be a vehicle for that sort of communication with "those who are interested in philosophy, or pearls of wisdom, or just complete nonsense. It's something to think about. If you have any ideas, let me know."

Leon Redbone performs at the Variety Playhouse on Fri., Sept. 22 at 8:30 p.m. For more information, visit www.variety-playhouse.com or call 404-521-1786.